Friday 17 July 2020, BBC Radio 3 @ 7 p.m.

Guest Writer, Antony Hodgson

This year, the BBC will broadest six weeks of Promenade Concerts taken from the archives and will end the season with two weeks of live concerts at which there is unlikely to be an audience.

The initial concert was therefore the traditional First Night of the Proms but not as we know it.  The opening piece was very much of today – 323 musicians taken from the BBC Orchestras played their parts individually and skilfully reassembled by engineers to represent the Grand Virtual Orchestra.  An amazing technical achievement, but in view of the awful piece they were required to play it scarcely mattered.  Beethoven’s Symphonies were thrown together. The themes are held together by a firm rhythm, often based on that of the first movement of the Seventh Symphony, piled one upon another. The (de)composer Iain Farrington called his arrangement Beethoveniana and what he achieved is a work that will please those who don’t care for Beethoven but like the tunes he wrote.  To hear Beethoven mauled in this way was excruciating.  The worst episode is the introduction of different English words to the ‘Ode to Joy’.

It was refreshing next to hear Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No.3 from 14 July 2017 (also a First Night) with Igor Levit and the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Edward Gardner.  The first movement was bright, swift and forward-moving, enhanced by only minimal use of the sustaining pedal.  It could not be called lightweight because Gardner achieved firm forcefulness from the orchestra.  Sadly, listening pleasure was destroyed after the first movement because the selfish clap-between-movements Mafia were out in force and Levit was forced to wait for a whole minute before he could commence the Largo.  There is surely no reason why this ugly intrusion could not have been edited out.  The Largo itself was a thing of beauty, elegant and despite a very measured speed, warmly flowing.  Preceded by a well-judged brief pause, the Finale sparkled to complete a performance both brilliant and sensitive.

From the Last Night of the Proms on 6 September 1995 came Harrison Birtwistle’s Panic. With John Harle (saxophone) and Paul Clarvis (drums) and the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Sir Andrew Davis, Panic assaulted the ears for an interminable amount of time.  I heard this premiere performance at the time and thought it rubbish.  Panic is so-called being a reference to the god Pan but there seems little relevance. Why could not Pan have been given the traditional flute rather than a saxophone which wanders aimlessly, sometimes angrily, throughout, accompanied mainly by jazz drummer and sundry other percussion. One might think there to be room for humour in this set-up but there is none, instead we heard a tribute to what composer Robert Simpson referred to as the “Tinpantonal” school of music.

What a relief to turn to Claudio Abbado’s magnificent  performance of Mahler’s Third Symphony with the Lucerne Festival Orchestra with mezzo-soprano Ana Larsson, Trinity Boys Choir and the ladies of the London Symphony Chorus on 8 August 2007. “Pan awakes” said Mahler in describing the opening movement and in Abbado’s striding conducting we have a proper tribute to Pan – after all he was a god and deserves to be represented with grandeur. The orchestra played superbly and the recorded sound is admirable – full of detail.  The posthorn solo in the Scherzo was wonderfully distant and absolutely magical, and Abbado’s deeply-felt reading of the broad Finale is notable for the strength of the superlatively rich and powerful tone of the Lucerne strings.  This is a very special performance.